Interview: Larry Tye On The Negro Leagues

Posted on by Kerel Cooper

In continuing with honoring the Negro Leagues during Black History month, I recently had an email exchange with Larry Tye. Larry is the author of a new bestselling biography about Satchel Paige.

Check out the interview below as we discuss Larry’s past experiences, his book about Satchel Paige, the Negro Leagues and much more.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself?
A: I am a former medical writer at the Boston Globe, off now writing books and running a training program for medical journalists. My last book was a bio of Satchel Paige, out last summer from Random House. My next, for the same publisher, is a bio of Superman. I also have written about the Pullman porters, the Jewish diaspora, mental health, and a bio of Edward Bernays, the man who founded the profession of public relations.

Q: Tell us about your latest book, Satchel and what inspired you to do the book?
A: I was driven to write about Satchel by two things: a father who thought Paige was the best, and told me so every time I went to a game as a kid and saw a pitcher I thought was terrific. “Good, but not like the great Satchel Paige,” my dad would say.

Twenty years later the Pullman porters weighed in. While I was interviewing them about their life on the railroads, they told me about traveling on their elegant sleeping cars with Joe Louis and Louis Armstrong and all the African-American greats of the Twentieth Century — and loving Satchel more than any of them. I realized we knew about the Satchel legends, but not about what was true and what wasn’t or about the man behind the ballplaying feats.

Q: During your research for the book, was there any one thing in particular that surprised you or stood out about Satchel Paige (on or off the playing field)?
A: I was surprised that he threw as hard and fast as he did — hard enough that his catchers cushioned their gloves with beefsteaks. I was surprised that he started out dangerously wild, hitting nearly every opponent during his first game as a pro — but that he learned control so precise that his teammates would let him knock lit cigarettes from their mouths with a hardball.

I was surprised that, with all his showmanship, Satchel was really a lonely guy whose favorite spot was sitting by himself at a watering hole, fishing for catfish. And that despite his well-deserved reputation as a ladies’ man and a carouser, he loved his last and longest-lasting wife very deeply and cherished his seven children.

Q: The Negro Leagues produced a lot of great baseball players. Besides Satchel Paige, it there anyone else that piques your interests? If so, why?
A: I love the stories of Josh Gibson, who was as good with a bat as Satchel was with a baseball and was known as the Black Babe Ruth. I love the stories of Cool Papa Bell, who was at least as fast as they say, supposedly scoring from first on a bunt. I love, even more, stories of Silas Simmons and all the rest of the unsung and long-forgotten Negro Leaguers who played in the shadow world of blackball long before white American realized it existed. Simmons lived to be 111, and I talked to him the day he celebrated that birthday.

Q: Feel free to add any additional comments
A: Can you imagine the joy of spending 2 years where your main job was learning and writing about my two favorite issues: race and baseball. Satchel was intended as a biography of not just this great baseball player, but of Jim Crow, which as you know is a shorthand way of referring to that whole shameful era when America was segregated by race, and everything from water fountains and ballfields were divided into black worlds and white ones.

Special thanks to Larry Tye for doing this interview. To learn more about Larry and his book about Satchel Paige, check out larrytye.com

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